gall and gumption

Monday, January 22, 2007


“God in the Machine” sends his readers over to look at the web site Gawker’s list of blog clichés, and then invites them to come back and look at his own list.

The apologies are a reference to Flaubert’s Dictionary of Received Ideas, a compendium of utter banality. It is, I think, the only funny thing Flaubert wrote.

Here are a few samples.

ABSINTHE Extra violent poison: one glass and you're a dead man. Newspapermen drink it while writing their copy. Has killed more soldiers than the Bedouins.

ACTRESSES The ruin of young men of good family. Are terribly lascivious, engage in orgies, run through fortunes, and end up in the workhouse. 'I beg to differ: some make excellent mothers!'

APRICOTS 'We shan't have any again this year.'

BANQUET Always 'a festive occasion'. Nobody will ever forget it, and the guests never leave without promising to meet again at the one next year. Some joker must refer to 'the banquet of life'.

BLONDES Hotter than brunettes. (See BRUNETTES.)

BRUNETTES Hotter than blondes. (See BLONDES.)

CARTHUSIANS Spend their time making Chartreuse, digging their own graves and saying to one another: 'Brother, you too must die.'

CROSSBOW A good excuse for bringing up the story of William Tell.

DOMESTICITY Never fail to speak of it with respect.

ERECTION Said only of monuments.

ETRUSCAN All antique vases are Etruscan.

You should look at the whole thing, because it is an impressive list of symptoms of many kinds of banality – false sentiment, perfect cluelessness, boringness, witlessness, the weird things people say when they don’t have anything to say but feel compelled to say something, totally wacky attitudes about sex, blissful unawareness of self-contradiction, and just plain old daffy constructions, and my personal favorite, that mysterious thing where people like to speak in clichés. My favorite, from personal experience, is the deaathless and crusty one that I get when I’m out walking the dogs: “Now, who’s walking who?” I swear, the people who say this thing to me think they are being very funny and original. It totally mystifies me. But it does amuse me, I mean, not the statement itself, but the idea that they think it's funny; I think that's funny. So I always take it nicely and smile back as if I too think it’s a funny, original, clever remark. No point being churlish, you know. When you look at it all you don’t know whether to feel disgust or a sort of pitying affection for the human race, including your own self. Except for the boiling frog atrocity, which, by the way, would fit right into Flaubert's Dictionary. I have never stooped that low.

These two dictionaries of blog clichés are a little bit of “cleverer than thou,” I think. You know how at the end of every year magazines come out with the expressions that everyone is sick of? Like “think outside the box” or “You go girl!” or “Get a life!” I will be really happy when the word “paradigm” achieves total oblivion. It is a word that, for me, comes packaged in a great mass of excelsior, wadding, Styrofoam, and utter bullshit. But it keeps coming back every year, it is the Undead of vocabulary.

But I’m not so sure about these blog clichés. I’ve been reading blogs now like a complete addict for about two and a half years, and I have seen all these expressions and gags in use. I am inclined to think that they are like the expressions you get in almost any popular non-highbrow art form.

For instance, in the Scots ballads of the Middle Ages, like “Sir Patrick Spens.” There are many versions of it, but in the best one there is an economy of storytelling that rests completely on what you really could call stereotyped imagery. In many ballads you often get things coming in threes. Challenges, three times, for instance. The hero of the ballad, if he is a knight or a nobleman, has a hawk, a horse, and a hound that are part of the narrative, as in “Edward, Edward,” and “The Twa Corbies.” Or in various ballads that reliable time-frame in which any situation develops: “a twelvemonth and a day.”

Of course these are the highbrow ballads. They may have started on the street but someone (or possibly a few people, from time to time) upgraded them in the course of writing them down. When poetry in modern English began to get on its legs in the Elizabethan era, it was the lyric that really took off, not the narrative poem (Yes, yes, I know about The Faerie Queene but I’m really talking about all the varieties of innovation and importation and adaptation of forms from Italian literature, and in any event The Faerie Queene isn’t a ballad, and when people started writing epics again they looked absolutely nothing like it.) Ballads didn’t die out for a long time; they kept being written and circulated among the poor and illiterate just as, say, “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” circulated among the better-off who could read. And in the ballads, just like in those “True Accounts” of the life of crime, the capture, and execution of some criminal (that was one of the uses of the ballad form), you had to present details and the expected moralizing reflections in a compact form that would be remembered, and that would also call on the reader (or listener’s) reserve of common symbols, tropes, or ready-made sentiments. It was meant to be familiar, which meant it had to use familiar tropes. Because it was appealing to an illiterate audience, who had to be able to catch and remember details and ideas without too much difficulty.

Moreover, there's another thing; there is a whole idea of competence in language that rests on the use of familiar tropes. You all think that Dickens made up the speech of characters like Mr. Pecksniff or Mr. Micawber, that they are creations of fantasy. But I have heard people speak like that, proudly, possessed with a sense that they are standing on the stage of history and speaking their part in the most sublimely artful language. The effect is appalling, it has a sort of ghastly fascination for me. When, for example, someone in St. Kitts or Nevis dies, his compatriots almost always refer to him as "a son of the soil." They love this expression. That it is a cliche troubles no one at all. It is what is apt for the occasion, and to say what is apt for the occasion is all of speech.

The great poets of the English Renaissance thought so too. The poems themselves were types: the carpe diem poem; the "flea" poem; the "one day you'll be sorry you betrayed me" poem (still going strong); most of Herrick's poems are based on old Roman models that had come back into circulation largely from Ben Jonson's adaptation of them. When I was teaching the Renaissance poems there were always a couple of students who mistrusted the sincerity of the poetry because it used so many pre-existing forms. A poem didn't come howling up out of the depths of the poet's soul, raw and pure. So I'd have to explain that there was a very different notion at work of the making of poetry. And I had to persuade them that it was actually an interesting notion. Which, indeed, it was; it was taking accepted forms and putting them to work with wit, copiousness of invention, vitality, subtlety, and intellectual force, achieving a kind of density with the medium; four lines of Donne or four lines of Shakespeare's sonnets have a lot of thinking in them. It's as though each sought to outdo his predecessors. And with someone like Ben Jonson you have the idea of what you feel and the idea of what you ought to feel. The idea of there being a feeling you ought to have is so different from the post-romantic conception which people have, without thinking, that a poet is a chaotic being who emits the pure truth of existence because he can't help it. Kind of like being a member of the Rat Pack or of a heavy metal band. Well, there's another received idea about poetry, anyhow. Or from our belief, derived from psychology, that if we don't express what we truly feel we're being in denial and/or crazy. Whereas the Renaissance poets didn't worry much about whether they really felt some version of "time's winged chariot hovering near"; they were going to make you feel it and imagine it as you had never felt or imagined it before, in some new, startling way. And in any event there is real feeling, and plenty of it -- it's just not where you expect it to be, and it isn't the feelings you expect. They were very sly and subtle, those guys.

Gospel music is another place where the repetition of clichés is somehow very satisfying. Think of all those invocation of the Jordan River, so chilly and cold (“Chilled my natural body but it didn’t chill my soul.”) Traveling on a journey with a heavy burden, laying down the burden, crossing to the other side, getting your robe, your shoes, your crown; "When I get to heaven gonna jump and shout,/Nobody there gonna turn me out." Actually the freshness of really original gospel music is spun off of these old tropes in new and clever ways:

Will the Lord be standing somewhere round my bedside
When the doctor shakes his head and walks away?
Will I hear him whisper, “I am with thee?”
Will he lead me to that land of fadeless day?”


How far am I from Heaven?
Well the angels singing and doorbells ringing in glory…

Wake me, shake me, don’t let me sleep too late,
I’ll wake up Judgment Morning,
Swinging on the Golden Gate.

The same purpose is at work. These old things are given, but what is original is the new ways in which they are used. And then there are all those blues songs that open with the indispensable phrase, “Woke up this mornin.’' Even Robert Johnson, the most eerily original blues singer, uses it.

The same practical considerations that made ballads use stereotypes are at work with the blues. Coming out of an oral culture, they need to be remembered, and they have to be familiar, i.e., quick to comprehend and retain, and because the art is the expression of one person who shares a culture with the others, and that sharing is richly taken for granted..

Time is a factor in all of these forms. I think it's a factor among blog writers also, and that the familiarity works in the same way. Any one of these blog gags is a short cut, but there are situations in which short cuts are needed. Even though the form stays the same, the variations occur in the new situations that arise daily to which it can be applied, and it's the combination of sameness and newness that makes the zing. It's like a running gag, for the bloggers who use that kind of humor. Not all of them do, by the way. Works, doesn't work? Used this one or that one one time too many? Well, that's all right, in a week it will be in the archives.

So I give them a break. Or else possibly it's rotting my brain.


At 12:10 AM, Anonymous tom said...

This is a masterful statement of its theme. I'd never connected so many and various elements to it - Twa corbies, yes, but now I better see why I love Dickens. At times I've thought of these "cliches" as riffs - which a group of writers somehow bring together, the way in jazz certain musical signatures come back all the time - etc. Dolce stilnovisti are another bunch.

What's so hilarious is that these smart blooogers, spotting all the little cliches, teeter toward the realm of cliche themselves. As is seen when someone offers some observations that include wit and thought along with, or instead of, the snerkiness. E.g.


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